We might think of fir trees as a seasonal symbol, something that enters our homes in December before swiftly departing for another year. Yet UK forests are peppered with millions of Christmas trees, whatever the month; indeed, they’re a big part of our national character, flecking our valleys and riverbanks with evergreen beauty.
Shapely, statuesque, and carrying that distinctive scent, the image of a fir tree is enough to awaken our senses, reminding us of times with those we love. Today, we’re tracing this holiday staple back to its roots, figuratively speaking, so you realise what a hold the British woodland has always claimed on our psyche.
Contrary to Christian associations, the Christmas tree has been present in some form since (astoundingly) the era of Ancient Egypt. Ra, the sun god, was perceived to be weakest on the shortest night of the year – the winter solstice. To mark the point at which he would recover from ‘illness’, beginning the climb to full strength, the Egyptian populace would fill their homes with green palm rushes. This represented the conquest of life over death, or nature weathering the forces that would extinguish it.
In other corners of the world, societies were noticing that evergreen trees were something special. Celtic druids identified them as a sacred plant, decorating temples in fir leaves during the cold season. The Romans got in on the act too, as (later) did the Vikings. The former would include such foliage in their Saturnalia festival, whilst the latter believed that nailing a wreath to your door dissuaded evil spirits from coming inside.
Eventually, of course, Christianity co-opted a lot of these old traditions. When the religion took precedence in Northern Europe, fir trees were nicknamed the ‘Paradise Tree’, representing the Garden of Eden at church services on the 24th December.
The practice of a communal Christmas tree – one that could be enjoyed with our family, or our neighbours – surfaced sometime between the mid 1400s and the 1510s. Two townships (Riga in Latvia, and Tallinn in Estonia) dispute the other for who had the first sizeable public tree in the city square. Men would reportedly dance around it with a bunch of comely maidens, before lighting it aflame as the night drew on.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it was the Germans who hit on the inspired concept of taking a tree home. Martin Luther, a Saxony-born preacher, was purportedly so moved by the view of starlight winking through an evergreen canopy that he decided to cut the tree down, and preserve it as a divine reminder of Jesus Christ. In the 16th century, his example spread to a number of German provinces, who would then take the fashion to America’s New World two hundred years later.
Britain experienced the official dawn of its Christmas tree craze in the 1830s. It hit its peak when Prince Albert (wed to Queen Victoria) erected a tree at Windsor Castle, evidencing his German lineage. An image of the happy family was published in a London newspaper, and fir trees became synonymous with the warm, regal jollity of the season.
Zipping forward to the 2010s, it’s heartening to see so many fir trees retaining their grip on our imagination. They’re some of our most recognisable flora, covering swathes of the country from the New Forest in the South-East to the craggy outcrops of Scotland and Northern Ireland. There aren’t many rural environments that are bereft of a few fir species – and they’re begging to be appreciated, no matter the calendar date.
If you have a camping trip in mind, strike off and seek the bliss of a place rich with fir trees and other evergreen staples! Camping In The Forest has several destinations on offer that’ll suit a budding naturalist, particularly those who respect the history of their surroundings. Take a stroll, bring the kids, and discover what a Christmas miracle is like when you wake up to it every day.
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